Today’s blog is Part 1 of a 2 Part Series on more peacefully feeding kids and grandkids, and ourselves.
As a mom of two teenagers, I fully realize that feeding kids, no matter their age, can be a bit stressful and difficult at times. We love our kids and want them to be healthy and have healthy habits and behaviors.
That natural desire and concern for our kids can easily turn into an over concern and a real source of worry. This can lead us to want to gain control over their eating habits and possibly do or say things that aren’t necessarily helpful around food and their body image. This is why building knowledge around raising competent eaters can be super helpful.
Raising Competent Eaters Versus Raising Kids Who “Eat Healthy”
As parents we want our kids to grow up and be competent adults, right? The definition of competent is “having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully.” We want them to be competent at school, competent at whatever profession they choose, competent at their relationships, etc.
Something that is less often thought about, I feel like, is raising competent eaters – raising kids who become adults who have the ability, knowledge, and skill to feed themselves in a way that makes them feel good and supports them in living their life and who have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and family therapist and authority on eating and feeding kids and families says, “competent eaters are confident, comfortable, and flexible with eating, and are matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable and nourishing food.”
As parents and grandparents, we can help our kids become more competent eaters by providing and encouraging positive food experiences and learning more ourselves about what it means to be and raise competent eaters.
Why is raising competent eaters important?
According to research on eating competence, people who are competent eaters tend to be healthier both physically and emotionally. They tend to have better diets – including more fruits and vegetables and wider variety of foods, a lower incidence of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes and have better quality of life indicators including more positive sleep and activity patterns.
Competent eaters are also more self-aware and self-accepting, not only with food, but also of their bodies and in other areas of their lives. A focus on helping kids have a positive relationship with food is increasingly recognized in the scientific literature as a way to prevent disordered eating and eating disorders and issues around body dissatisfaction.
Characteristics of competent eaters
- take time to eat and make feeding themselves a priority by planning several daily meals and snacks
- are relaxed about eating and trust their bodies to eat enough
- are flexible in “making do” when other people and situations dictate what’s available to eat and what isn’t
- listen to their bodies to know when they are hungry and when they are full and ready to end a meal
- enjoy food and take pleasure in eating without guilt
- give themselves permission to eat what they want and enjoy
- sometimes eat in response to their emotions or eat beyond comfortable fullness, but don’t stress about it because they know this is just a normal part of eating
- are relaxed, self-trusting, and joyful about eating, and take good care of themselves with food
How to Put It Into Practice
As caregivers, we have a big influence on the relationship our kids grow up to have with food and their bodies. Becoming a competent eater and raising our kids to be the same is a process and takes time. Here are a few things you and your family can do.
1. Eat together (when possible).
In our busy world, it is key to show our kids the importance of sitting down and taking time to eat. With kids in activities and many of us with busy lives of our own this can’t happen ALL the time. That’s ok. But prioritizing it and making it happen sometimes is possible and we know has a positive impact.
2. Be an example.
Children are like sponges and learn from watching adults. They learn from what you eat, how you eat, and what kind of relationship you have with food. We can role model enjoyment of food, consistently nourishing our bodies, and speaking kindly about our own bodies. If you struggle with your own relationship with food, it is never too late to repair that – both for yourself and for your kids/grandkids.
3. Teach them how to cook.
Feeling comfortable in the kitchen and knowing how to create simple meals that are nourishing and taste good is an important life skill. Again, with our busy schedules this can seem impossible. I promise though, the reward is worth the effort. Start simple and let them choose what to cook and keep it fun! Not real comfortable in the kitchen yourself? It’s never too late to learn.
4. Take a step back.
As a mom of two teens and a dietitian, I know full well that this one can be really hard! But simply put, children cannot learn to self-regulate their eating if we are always telling them what to do. We can offer guidance and suggestions, make food available, and set an example, but we can’t force and/or control and the more we try the more it will backfire and take them away from eating competence. Ultimately, we have roles as a parent/caregiver and as kids and teens they have roles. By stepping back a bit and letting go and giving our kids autonomy to make the best decisions for themselves (with some structure) we can create an easier, less stressful family food environment. (I will cover more on this in Part 2 coming up in my next blog on Division of Responsibility.)
If you look at this list and you are doing none of these that doesn’t mean you have failed, instead it just means there is room for progress. Which one of these suggestions resonates with you most? What one thing can you do to begin to promote eating competency and food peace in your family?
Body Diversity and Raising Competent Eaters
The further our kids’ bodies are away from the cultural thin ideal, the more difficult it can seem to put this framework into practice. Because of weight stigma and bias we feel if we can control our kid’s food, movement, and other behaviors then we can help them control and “fix” their bodies and make them fit into what our culture deems acceptable and therefore save them from suffering.
In reality, the more we control, cajole, nag, and restrict, the more we are teaching them to not trust their bodies and to not be competent eaters who make decisions around food from a place of honoring their body’s needs. The more guilt, shame, and pressure we put on them to “eat their veggies” or “not eat too many sweets” or suggest “maybe they’ve had enough”, the further we take them away from being able to approach food and being in relationship with their bodies peacefully.
Having a stressful relationship with food and having a poor body image can lead to disordered eating patterns and an unhealthy relationship with food. One client shared with me that just one comment made by a parent about her weight after she went away to college has stuck with her for many years and was a contributing factor in her disordered relationship with food and dissatisfaction with her body. Making comments about a child’s weight, appearance or body shape can feel harmless, but our off-the-cuff remarks can have harmful, long-lasting effects.
The reality is that bodies come in all different shapes, sizes, and weights. We are not all meant to be the same size. Bodies change as kids grow from babies, to toddlers, to adolescents, to teens, and then throughout adulthood. There is no one right way to have a body. The more we can love, support, and accept our kids just the way they are instead of trying to “fix” them the better off they – and we – will be.
What Message Do You Want to Give Your Kids?
We love our kids and want the very best for them. Ultimately, the message we can share with kids of all ages (and maybe remind ourselves) is that food is about yes, nutrition, but also enjoyment and pleasure, and does not have to be about stress, guilt, fear, reward, punishment or rules. By changing our own approach and beginning to incorporate these few guidelines we can raise our kids and grandkids to competently and peacefully feed and care for themselves and help them to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
Want to learn more? Check out these podcasts:
Don’t Salt My Game Podcast
What Mealtimes Can Be When We Take the Pressure Off Episode #142, Part 1 and Part 2
The Burnt Toast Podcast with Virginia Sole-Smith
“The More You Feel Like You Don’t Have Permission to Eat It, the More You Will Crave It.”
“If My Daughter Wanted to ‘Eat Healthier,’ I Would Respond Like She Wanted to Smoke Cigarettes.”
“We All Know Too Much About Nutrition.”